If the ethics or the histories of humanities education are not quite helpful in regaining some collective nerve, perhaps a less abstract genre would work better -- something, that is, that would tell us in intimate terms why one studies in the humanities, what it feels like to do so, and how doing so changes the ways one feels. If that is what is wanted, Terry Castle's The Professor could scarcely be bettered. Not quite a biography, it is a witty phenomenology of humanistic life; it opens up what such a life feels like from the inside. One of its happy paradoxes is that its essays, each seemingly written as a jeu d'esprit, elegantly perform the public service of articulating the claims of the humanities.
Take, for instance, the question of why one devotes a life to such a pursuit. The budding graduate student has no Paper Chase, no ER, no thrilling fantasy of the intellectual rigors and erotic enticements of professional initiation that would mitigate the shame involved in gaining entry (or re-entry) to middle-classness. Even the few official bureaucratic hoops of a doctoral student -- the oral exams, the reading lists -- are anticlimactic, presented with a dully comforting reassurance that they're not really all that frightening. And of course the stories of unpaid rent, half-employment, and the neo-Victorian social struggles of men and women past their first youth have no glamour about them. What is left is a culture of defensive shame: shame about so many things, but mostly about the tremendous gap between exalted goals and humble everyday routines.